Quand le soleil dit bonjours aux montagnes. Whether you speak French or not, the opening line to Lucille Starr’s million-selling 1964 hit “The French Song” is instantly recognizable. Produced in Los Angeles by Herb Alpert (of Tijuana Brass fame), the single became the first million-selling record by a Canadian female country music recording artist and topped record charts worldwide. At one time, Lucille held the top five spots on the South African charts and in the Netherlands “The French Song” was #1 for nineteen weeks straight. Lucille’s name remains forever associated with that sentimental bilingual ballad.
Lucille Starr passed away at her home in Las Vegas on September 4, 2020. She was 82.
Born Lucille Marie Raymonde Savoie in St. Boniface in 1938, Lucille lived on Langevin Street for her first seven years. “Some of the sweetest memories come from my childhood in Winnipeg,” she reminisced from her home in Las Vegas a few years back. She grew up in a musical family. “My daddy would play the fiddle and my mother sang.” Lucille began singing in church in St. Boniface.
The family moved to Mallairdville, British Columbia where Lucille would launch her singing career in her teens teaming up with guitarist/singer Bob Regan (Bob Frederickson) as rockabilly duo Bob and Lucille before renaming themselves The Canadian Sweethearts. The Sweethearts enjoyed several hits in Canada and the United States. Signed to A&M Records, record producer Herb Alpert brought Lucille into the recording studio to record a solo record, “The French Song”.
“Actually, it was re-named that,” Lucille explains, “because Herb couldn’t pronounce the original French title. He would say, ‘I don’t care if I can’t understand the word, I know this is a hit’.” Alpert contributed the trumpet intro to the record. Released in the spring of 1964 at the height of Beatlemania, “The French Song” captured hearts all over the world. The following year Lucille was fêted with an invitation to be Grande Vedette (top star) of Amsterdam’s Grand Gala du Disques, an international music cavalcade. She was in illustrious company following on the heels of previous honourees Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand and Charles Aznavour. “I was the first Canadian or American to do a television special in the Netherlands,” she states with pride. Lucille’s popularity extended to Belgium, Switzerland, Mexico, Guam, the Philippines, Japan, and Korea. She performed in many of these countries, and in South Africa the Prime Minister held a special luncheon in Lucille’s honour at their parliament. She headlined a five-week tour in South Africa in 1967, where she received several gold records.
Her marriage was fraught with turmoil from the get-go and with Lucille’s solo success, Regan became more abusive. “When I started getting hits, he became very jealous,” recalls Lucille. “Bob wanted me to fail.” Their turbulent relationship was portrayed in the Canadian stage production Back to You: The Life & Career of Lucille Starr by Tracy Powers which was staged at the Prairie Theatre Exchange in 2010.
Lucille scored further hits with Colinda, Jolie Jacqueline, and a bilingual cover of Ray Price’s Crazy Arms. Her yodeling abilities were put to good use on the popular television show The Beverly Hillbillies where she provided the singing voice for Cousin Pearl. Lucille recorded in Nashville with noted producer Billy Sherrill, the man behind hits by Tammy Wynette, Charlie Rich, and George Jones. The partnership yielded two albums and the hits: Too Far Gone, (Bonjour Tristesse) Hello Sadness and Send Me No Roses.
A fascinating sidebar to Lucille’s story is that the former Prime Minister of Croatia Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic’s mother liked Lucille’s Colinda so much that she named her daughter after the song.
In the 1980s, Lucille married Bryan Cunningham, a Sarnia, Ontario businessman, and appeared regularly in Las Vegas where the two resided. Lucille continued to tour worldwide releasing Lucille’s Starr’s Greatest Hits in Europe in 1982, and picking up another gold record. In 1996 she was added to the Nashville Walk of Stars in the Country Music Hall of Fame. The Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame inducted Lucille in 1989.
Reflecting on her long career, Lucille stated, “When I was just a kid, all I ever thought about was getting up on a stage and singing. I never thought about stardom or gold records. It’s like the happy ending you read about in story books.”